Making the Brazilian Desert Bloom and Bear Food

Farmer Luzivaldo. By Isaura Daniel

The temperature is high: 113 degrees F in the hottest months. The rain only
arrives from time to time and does not reach more than 20 inches of water. The
soil, little fertile, a mixture of clay and sand, is also shallow, less than 6.5
feet deep. The vegetation of the caatinga, the Brazilian savannah, roasts under
the strong sun.

Those arriving in this region, in the interior of the northeastern Brazilian states of Pernambuco and Piauí, one of the driest areas of the Brazilian semiarid, would say that it is better not to grow or raise anything there.

Moving further into the area, though, it is possible to see that there are people who would not agree. The landscape shows small oases of production. They are sertaneaw6kx, the inhabitants of the region, who insist on taking technology to the region, to make the dry land also produce food.

There are women and men like Luzinéia de Souza Rodrigues Amorim and João Batista Amorim, who live in the interior of Acauã, in the state of Piauí, one of the poorest cities of Brazil. The house where Luzinéia and Batista live with their two children, Leorodrigo, aged 12, and Beatriz, aged seven, is in the midst of the caatinga, away from the city, in a dry area.

Surrounding the couple’s small property, albeit, there is a large variety of plants and animals: corn, vegetables, leguminous plants, palms, sorghum, cassava, sugarcane, beans, goats, sheep and cattle. The miracle of production in Batista’s and Luzinéia’s house, is the fruit of simple actions. The main one: the establishment of a mud-patch, a hole in the ground to retain rainwater.

Batista’s corn crop, covering half a hectare, was sewn in mid February and received just 1.6 inches of rain in the current crop. Notwithstanding, it should generate 1,060 lbs, a figure considered good for the standards in the region. It was the mud-patch that guaranteed irrigation of the crop.

The small dam is made in a highland area near the farmland, which should also be on a hill. When rain is lacking, water from the mud-patch runs down the hill to the crop, where it runs down contour lines, dampening the earth.

The corn planted by Batista, and the sorghum, which also receives water from the mud-patch, is used to feed the animals during the drought, when grass, suffering from excessive sun and lack of rain, loses its properties.

“In the past the animals got very thin during the drought,” stated Luzinéia, commenting on the crops prior to the mud-patch. This, in reality, is one of the greatest challenges of countrymen in the semiarid: keeping their sheep, cattle and goat herds, well fed during the drought, which spans from August to October.

At the time, the caatinga itself, which feeds the animals, and the grass wilt. The sertaneaw6kx are therefore using more and more technologies promoted by research and teaching associations and institutions that work in the semiarid to raise their herds and keep their crops alive during the drought.

The production of hay and silage are two examples. They are both made out of plants that flower during the rainy season, from November to March, and may be stored to feed the animals during the dry season.

Both processes are new, as is the mud-patch, but they have been improved and their use is being spread among the sertaneaw6kx. “There was accumulated knowledge. Now this knowledge has been added to technology,” stated the general-head at the Semiarid Unit of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa), Pedro Carlos Gama da Silva, a doctor in Applied Economics.

The Embrapa unit is in the city of Petrolina, in the state of Pernambuco. Farmer Luzivaldo Leonardo de Macedo, from the interior of Dormentes, a city in Pernambuco, for example, knew about the existence of silage. But he only learnt how to do it correctly last year. It is now what helps him keep his sheep fat during the drought.

Drought Farming

In the Brazilian semiarid, speaking about “fighting” the drought is  currently, a rude term. Those in the region are now learning how to “live” with it. For farmers, this means using seeds that are more adequate to the climate, storage of rainwater for periods of dearth, complementing animal feeding during the drought, investing in cultures that develop well in sunny areas with not very fertile land.

This movement may be seen clearly in the interior of Pernambuco and Piauí, in quick chats with the farmers. Pedro Cesário dos Santos, from the interior of Petrolina, has started dedicating himself to dehydrating cassava to feed the animals. José Leonardo de Macedo, from Dormentes, started working on silage. José dos Santos, from the interior of Afrânio, now has contour curves in his crop.

Embrapa Semiarid has also been working together with farmers to guarantee larger crops in the caatinga. corn, watermelon, beans, grass, sunflower, sorghum. All of these crops, and others, had varieties adapted by the Embrapa.

Farmers are already, for example, using a corn variety called Caatingueiro whose cycle – from sowing to harvesting – is 90 days. As it is precocious, it needs less rain. Whereas normal corn is picked after 130 days and needs rain from its 70th to 80th day, the Caatingueiro needs rain up to its 60th day.

“There are a series of technological alternatives that permit survival with the semiarid in a sustainable manner. The corn with a shorter cycle guarantees production and reduces the pressure on natural resources,” states Gama.

The work of social, education and research institutions in the region is heading in the same direction: making man live better and better in the semiarid.

Sun and Fat Cattle

It is four years old and weighs 1.2 tons. It is of the Nelore breed. The bull in question belongs to Zabelê Farm, and was born in Afrânio, in the interior of Pernambuco, in an area of the Brazilian semiarid. It is, therefore, a bull of the savannah.

But a bull of the savannah weighing over a ton? The animal is an example of the possibility of raising good cattle in regions with adverse climates. The Nelore bull feeds on buffel biloela grass, a variety adapted to the semiarid region, explains the owner of Zabelê Farm, Mair Borba.

The bull is also fed minerals and during the drought receives a protein supplement, sugarcane, corn and sorghum. “It is possible to produce with quality here,” stated Borba. To keep the grass green, Borba, who raises beef and dairy cattle for reproduction, has an underground dam on his property.

The dam is a kind of wall made within the soil, using a waterproof material and concrete, preventing the water from running out of the crop. The technology guarantees that the soil stays damper and permits the crop to develop better.

Another example of good livestock in the Brazilian savannah is the sheep on Ribeiros Farm. The animals are of the Santa Inês breed and are slaughtered at the age of one. At that age they reach the weight of 66 lbs, according to the owner of the property, Genildo Nunes da Silva.

The sheep also feeds on buffel grass and corrente grass. Minerals are part of the diet and the water comes from the São Francisco river. The Santa Inês breed, according to Silva, known as Primo in the region, is appropriate for hot regions. Both farms, Ribeiros and Zabelê, are larger than most properties in the region.

There are examples of good cattle breeds, however, also in family farming in the savannah of Pernambuco and Piauí. Joaquim de Souza Neto, from the interior of Acauã, breeds 70 heads of dairy cattle. Each cow generates between two and three gallons of milk a day.

The produce is used for him and his wife Edilúcia de Macedo Coelho, to produce milk sweet. The milk recipe is similar to that of other farms. The cattle eat buffel grass, minerals and urea. In the dry period, the cattle also receives cotton residue. The weekly result is 130 bars of milk sweet and 350 lbs of paste.

Anba –


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